Idiots Assemble – Spitting Image Saves the World: Live on Stage, The Rep, Birmingham, 16 February 2023, on until 11 March 2023 4**** David Gray & Paul Gray

Spitting Image has had to undergo some format changes in its transition from screen to stage.  For one, the hugely talented and versatile puppeteers are now visible rather than hidden.  They provide the “legs” which enable their characters to move freely around the stage, thus creating a dramatic fluidity that the TV show could rarely achieve.

The sketch format of the TV show is replaced with a plot.  This flimsy and rather derivative narrative tissue is, in truth, little more than a frame on which are hung a series of hilarious sketch-like scenes and spectacularly glitzy musical numbers.

The need for a plot – and the fact they cannot rewrite the show every night – means it has to be more broad-brush, aiming its barbs at the general state of affairs, rather than specific events as they unfold.  Little more than lip-service can be paid to more immediately topical issues.  For example, the very recent resignation of the Scottish First Minister is acknowledged through some random appearances by an increasingly belligerent, sweary, and Anglophobic, Nicola Sturgeon.   

The most radical departure is the addition of a live theatre audience.  This is problematic in places.  The puppets lip-synch to a pre-recorded backing.  Whereas in live comedy, performers shape their delivery and timing to the responses of the audience, this is not possible here.  As a consequence, there are moments where the pace falters, with spaces where anticipated laughs do not materialise, and places where gags are lost; drowned out by unexpected laughs from the audience that do.

That said, this is a very funny, well-put-together, fabulously technically accomplished show, with a high gag count. The satire is utterly brutal, with immediately recognisable caricatures in terms of appearance, vocal impersonation, and in their foibles. 

The writing is at its sharpest, the production values at their highest, and the visuals at their most imaginative, in musical numbers.  

So we have Bad Vlad giving a campy Busby Berkeley rendition of Putin on the Frizt (do you see what they did there?!); the women of the Parliamentary Cabinet riding around on enormous dancing penises; Carrie Johnson revealing huge nipples which sing, and; the ghost of the late Queen Elizabeth II playing an electric guitar solo. The latter may be a step too far.

The musical numbers also provide some of the most disturbing moments. At the end of the day, however, satire is inevitably disturbing. The Parliamentary Cabinet joining together to sing the Nazi anthem, Tomorrow Belongs to Me from Cabaret is unexpected and chilling. Suella Braverman – represented as a demented, demonic Victorian child a la Exorcist – delivers a version of If you could see him through my eyes (in relation to asylum seekers) with the horrific last line – “If you could see them through my eyes, they wouldn’t look human at all.”

The show is certainly challenging. However, this is refreshing in that if it is going to successfully attack the outrageous, it must present the outrageous and, in doing so, cause outrage.  In this, it is fearless, true, and unashamed.

Presented by – Avalon and Birmingham Rep, Written by – Al Murray, Matt Forde, and Sean Foley, Directed by – Sean Foley, Caricaturist Supremo – Roger Law, Set Designer – Alice Power, Lighting Designer – Tim Mitchell, Puppet Master – Scott Brooker, Costume Designer – Lotte Collett, Choreographer – Lizze Gee

Puppeteers – Kate Bradley, Paula Brett, Kaidan Dawkins, Bertie Harris, Jojo Lin, Pena Iiyambo, Chand Martinez, Will Palmer, Helen Parke, Rayo Patel, Tom Quinn, Faye Weerasinghe

Voiceover Artists – Al Murray, Debra Stephenson, Jojo Lin, Jason Forbes, Jess Robinson, Josh Berry, Kathryn Drysdale, Lorna Laidlaw, Luke Kempner, Matt Forde, Ronan Summers, Shri Patel 

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